Your Heart Will Lead You Home

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Unless you had an unfortunate upbringing, Disney movies are a part of every child’s life – with beautiful, lovable characters and stories that touch your heart. One of those many characters is the whimsical Winnie-the-Pooh — in the pantheon of childhood icons, there are few others who can make one smile as he can. Playing off of that notion, Disney and director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) take us back to the Hundred-Acre Wood and, with it, our childhoods, in today’s new release, Christopher Robin.

Now fully-grown, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor, American Pastoral) is working a thankless job in a luggage company in London — one that keeps his mind focused exclusively on work and away from his family, even when he’s at home. When ordered by his boss (Mark Gatiss, Sherlock) to stay at work over a weekend he promised to take his wife (Haley Atwell, Howard’s End) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael, On Chesil Beach) to the countryside, Christopher opts to keep to his job, but not without hesitation. While taking a quick break from work, his past finally catches up to him in the form of Winnie-the-Pooh (the inimitable Jim Cummings) – arriving when they need each other most…

Let’s not beat around the bush – this is a wondrous movie! If you haven’t been sold on Disney’s animated movies as of late, their live-action films have truly proven that the soul of Walt is alive and well! How, you may ask? I believe it’s in their knowledge of the meaning of nostalgia. Whereas so many movie remakes and TV revivals claim to be for the sake of “nostalgia,” they lack any feeling for the works that came beforehand and make little attempt to connect to the past. To better understand it, the etymology of the word “nostalgia” originates from the Greek words “Nostos” and “Algos” — translated, those words refer to “return home” and “pain,” both of which this film understands so very well. It further helps to have the accomplished Marc Forster directing — think what you will of his James Bond outing (Quantum of Solace), the man is experienced in pulling tears the same way dentists pull teeth — he brings all the wonder of childhood he did in Finding Neverland with the heartfelt feeling of time lost that he perfected in Stranger Than Fiction.

As for our cast, Mr. McGregor is in fine form as Robin, and it’s truly brilliant seeing him transform from stiff-upper-lip businessman to a grown child playacting with his old friends! Ms. Atwell plays his wife, Evelyn, wonderfully, initially a woman struggling to recognize the man she married as the man she loves, but still loving to both husband and daughter, and she has some great moments toward the end of the film! Young Ms. Carmichael, as daughter Madeline, is charming and lovable, even at her saddest, which she pulls off with aplomb. As for Mr. Gatiss… what a great sleaze he plays!

The voice cast is also terrific — Mr. Cummings plays both Pooh and Tigger as youthfully and joyfully as ever and with all the respect they deserve… there will never be another voice actor quite like him! Brad Garrett (Ratatouille) returns as Eeyore, the character he once played in Disney Interactive CD-ROM games in the 90’s, and he has some of the best deadpan comedy I’ve ever heard! Newcomers to the Hundred-Acre Wood include venerable English stars Sophie Okenodo (The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses) as Kanga, Toby Jones (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) as Owl, Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) as Rabbit (who has some great visual gags!) and Nick Mohammed (Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie) as Piglet, all of whom are wonderful additions to the cast and perfect heirs to the work of their previous actors.

I know I have been gushy in more than a few of my previous reviews, but the fact is, in this case, that Christopher Robin is a beautiful film that expands the stories we once knew so well and does it with the same loving care a parent would have for their child. Some would dismiss this movie as “depressing,” or the ungodly fusion of Ted and Hook — you’d be very wrong. Leave your prejudices at the door (where applicable) and enjoy wandering through your childhood memories that call you back once more.

(By the way, you’ll want to stick through the credits for a lovely nod to the past!)

Rating: 5/5

 

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It’s So Bad

I’m not even quoting The Wizard with the above title; Steven Spielberg’s latest truly is a SpielBurger (sue me), and ten times as cheesy! How could such an accomplished director rip a story like a Ready Player One to shreds and think it worth watching?

Barely resembling the novel on which it is based, this movie is, to quote Bill S. Preston Esq. and “Ted” Theodore Logan, “bogus.” All the film noir-y elements and sense of mystery found in Ernest Cline’s text are gone in favor of explosions and brain-numbing spectacle. Further, nearly all the novel’s 80’s-centric references are eschewed in favor of modernisms — I never wanted to see Tracer from Overwatch or even the eponymous Iron Giant, who is from the year 1999! It is true that the screenplay was co-written by Cline, but he bears second credit to Zak Penn (late of The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers), who destroys the poignancy with the writer’s equivalent of an impact drill.

But you may be thinking that the actors will carry this film. Actors? PAH! The only real talent in this film is the wasted Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as a cut-and-dry villain and Mark Rylance (Dunkirk) serving again as Spielberg’s muse the way Christopher Lloyd was to Robert Zemeckis. Virtually (heh heh) everyone else is cast on how pretty they are — what is this, an ABC pilot?!

This isn’t Spielberg’s technological Gulliver’s Travels — it’s not even tantamount to TRON: Legacy! What it is is the ungodly fusion of Wreck-It Ralph and Spy Kids 3D: Game Over! One of the daftest adaptations this side of The Dark Tower! Read the book and skip this… or rather, fast-forward.

Rating: 0/5

The Bad In Every Man

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It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.

After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.

Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!

Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.

In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.

Rating: 5/5

Thunderstruck

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Not many people would care to say it, but Marvel Studios’ 2011 effort at bringing Thor to the screen was a big friggin’ gamble, after the earthen adventures of the first two Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk. Its final result, however, was masterfully helmed by Sir Kenneth Branagh was nothing short of amazing — thus, the God of Thunder quickly became my favorite Avenger. The second outing is well chronicled in the backlogs of this blog and was, I regard, the first big misstep from the House of Feige. Still, I held out hope for the third outing, but worries beset me when I heard the newly-announced director, Taiki Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) said he was “going to take the second Thor movie and add more jokes.” Jokes, I regard, were what killed Thor: The Dark World, but having seen Waititi’s effort, I feel nothing but giddiness and contentment with what I saw!

The film opens with several king-sized bangs, as Thor (Chris Hemsworth, In the Heart of the Sea) claims the life of a gigantic monster and finds a new threat awaiting him, in the bloodlusting form of Hela (Cate Blanchett, Cinderella), the Goddess of death. Destroying his prized hammer, Mjölnir, Thor barely escapes to distant planet Sakaar, where the Contest of Champions awaits, an old friend lies captive, and old wounds look ready to burst.

Hemsworth is in better comedic form than I have ever seen him! While I stand by my comment that dedicated comedies are not for him, this is a superhero film in the hands of a sharp, talented comedic director, and that same talent only helps our hero. Tom Hiddleston (I Saw The Light) is in equally fine form, returning easily to the black wig as Loki and never once stooping to the suffocating caricature he was in The Dark World. Finally returning to the MCU is Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk — the latter of whom now talks! There is no better heir to the legacies of Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby than Ruffalo, bringing the brawn and brain in both sides of his character! A surprising return comes in the form of Heimdall (Idris Elba, Star Trek Beyond), the Asgardian gatekeeper who has a lot to deal with this time — his return is surprising given his well-publicized disdain with the franchise, but is all the more welcome, as he’s integral to this story and the franchise’s future.

Newcomers to the franchise also shine — Tessa Thompson (Creed) does her first accent role as Valkyrie, the last of an elite Asgardian platoon, and she is fierce as can be, with a smoothness comparable to crystal rum! That being said, lots of female roles in blockbusters these days like to emulate Star Wars‘ Rey, but apart from being a scavenger, the same can’t be said of Valkyrie — she’s got a vocabulary like an acid-soaked whip and fighting skills to match, no matter how smashed she gets! Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is in fine, debaucherous form as The Grandmaster, he who pulls the strings in the Contest of Champions. You really want to smack him in this, because he’s a perverted jerk, but then you want to kiss him, because he’s Jeff Goldblum! Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon) provides a comedic edge to his work as Skurge, an executioner under our villain’s payroll, and almost makes us root for said boss! Finally, Cate Blanchett — she takes another grand, villainous turn that most would be chewing the scenery in, but she manages to bring a level of humanity to such a horrid creature, one that suggests an abandoned child whose mind has filled with thoughts of vengeance. Bravo, Blanchett. Here’s hoping you make Dame by next Christmas!

The crew behind Ragnarok are integral to the films’ success — the film is brightly colored and peppered with detail, evoking memories of Mad Max: Fury Road, truly looking like a comic book without falling into the self-parody that Ang Lee’s Hulk did; see it in IMAX or IMAX 3D! The music is something else, too! Legendary composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh brings a score together that suggests the best of Patrick Doyle’s work and also Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (sidenote: fellow TRONiacs will surely appreciate the gladiatorial battle midway through the film!)

To clarify Waititi’s earlier statement, he did add more jokes, but the juvenile nature of said gags is toned down immensely — while there is one truly juvenile joke in the film, which you will surely recognize, the suddenness of its appearance actually makes it funny! The Dark World was inundated with them, so what could have remained the superhero equivalent of a Three Stooges comedy becomes that of a Marx Brothers satire, and it’s all the better. Waititi brings a comedic flair to the film reminiscent of James Gunn’s efforts in Guardians of the Galaxy, and as such, he’s not afraid to go serious when the need arises, and rest assured, there is as much at stake as there is in one of those films — one of the best examples of that is in Thor’s continued attempts at bringing Hulk back into the form of Bruce Banner, which starts off as a lighthearted gag, but evolves into genuine pathos by the time Banner becomes himself again. Also, Waititi isn’t afraid to linger with story elements — one of my biggest complaints with The Dark World was its glossing over the story in favor of naked actors, but though jokes may run deep in Ragnarok‘s DNA, it is still a film, and most great films have a narrative to follow with characters you care about! Here’s hoping Waititi is signed for more Marvel Studios ventures!

Let me reiterate, Thor is one of my favorite movies — I saw it five times in the theater! — and, until now, my favorite film in the Marvel Studios pantheon, as it has been gleefully upended by Thor: Ragnarok, one of the greatest trilogy-makers since Toy Story 3. Lusciously photographed, brilliantly scored and joyously written without a shred of fear in taking its time, this has all the makings of a classic.

Rating: 5/5

The Greatest Show On Earth

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…spoilers await below…

Slowly, but surely, I am beginning to tolerate select horror flicks — thus far, I’ve been able to withstand the shocks of Sleepy Hollow (1998), The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, but when I see a horror movie, it has to be more than blood and gore. What I look for are relatable characters and a solid story. The aforementioned three had all that, and so does 2017’s feature film remake of It, the Stephen King story that terrorized a generation.

This iteration moves the year to the 1980’s, remaining in Derry, a New England hamlet, where horror besets its children. Kids of all ages go missing unexpectedly from an unknown menace, and the adults in the community don’t give half a damn, so a group of kids, rejects from their school and families, take it upon themselves to defeat this threat once and for all — but can they confront what they fear in the process?

To those who don’t know, the titular “It” is commonly shown in the form of the utterly terrifying Pennywise, the dancing clown — straight out of the pages of your deepest nightmares and masterfully portrayed by Bill Skarsgård (True Blood), this is a villain like no other, and easily ousts Tim Curry’s portrayal from the 1990 miniseries. True, while Skarsgård owes his character to Curry’s portrayal, the former plays him in a less wordy manner – he speaks with his actions more often than his voice, which is higher than Curry’s, giving him a persona akin to a child molester; quite apropos for the role. Further, the design for Pennywise is also strikingly different — gone is the Bozo knockoff of the 1990 version and instead is one akin to a Victorian court jester. Some would say that contradicts the resetting to the 1980’s; I think it only helps the nightmarish, otherworldly look of Pennywise — a child’s fears usually are of things before their time. Speaking of, also amazing are the child actors, most of them newcomers, all of whom are fantastic as the members of the Losers’ Club. What I found fascinating about their characters is that they each have something that they’re scarred by — Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) lost his brother to Pennywise and has a stammering problem; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is bullied for being overweight; Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is suspected as a child prostitute and under the control of a molester father, and so on — not one of these characters is innocent, but it only makes them stronger and deeper in their convictions, and they’re all played as human as possible, and that speaks volumes of their acting talents.

The film’s director, Andy Muschetti, famed for having directed the surprise 2013 horror hit Mama, has truly reinvented the crowded field of Stephen King adaptations, most of them beneath contempt. Unlike this year’s first King “adaptation,” The Dark Tower, Muschetti fought tooth and nail, with the aid of this film’s producers, to include more of the novel verbatim in this film. In spite of the loss of the famed “Ritual of Chüd” sequence, this movie still soars, and earned the admiration of Stephen King himself — such praise is very rare for obvious reasons.

It should be noted that the movie doesn’t end here. Those familiar with the novel and/or miniseries will know that the story has two parts to it, and this film is no different. At the end, though the opening title card reads “It,” we are shown the film’s full title before the end credits: “It: Chapter One.” A daring move, to be sure, and no sequel was greenlit at the time of completion, but judging by the Thursday numbers as of this writing, our heroes will rise again to destroy the proverbial “It,” once and for all. I, for one, can hardly wait for Chapter Two to release. Welcome to the Losers’ Club!

Rating: 5/5

Guns of the Patriots

Love it or hate it, someday, your favorite film will be remade, and if it sucks, you’ll always have the original to look back on. That being said, every now and then comes a remake that, while not necessarily justified in existence, packs one hell of a punch and brings the story, in some way, into a modern context. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has done just that with his take on John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but his is no copy-paste remake of either’s vision.

Relocating the setting to the California Territory in the late 1800s, the people of Rose Creek are at their wit’s end, as ruthless Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, Elegy) is taking their land and lives by force, and all for his own personal gain. One such a townsperson who has lost her home and her husband is Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, Hardcore Henry). Traveling the near cities looking for help to stand up to Bogue and his men, she finds Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington, Antwone Fisher), a warrant officer who joins her cause almost on the spot. Fighting at Chisholm’s side are noted boozer Joshua Farraday (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy), ex-Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Sinister), assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), lone Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, Lilin’s Brood) and hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, The Judge). Together, they set out to help the townspeople take back what is theirs… and settle a few personal scores.

Those who complain about this remake existing should take into account what could have been — At the project’s inception, Tom Cruise was set to star, but he dropped out over salary issues, and thus we have Fuqua’s vision, brilliantly written by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and diversely cast in a day and age when many are decrying Hollywood movies for a lack of such casts. However, diversity does not solely make this cast succeed, and having the cool and collected Washington lead this team is a brilliant choice — he is the perfect successor to Yul Brynner. Pratt, channelling his inner Star-Lord is charming, but not suffocating, as the womanizing Farraday, something between Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine with elements of Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Something the surprised me was that Hawke’s character, Robicheaux, is written as having owed his life to Chisholm, in spite of the fact that the former’s character was a Confederate — it’s good to see redemption of a villain in a big-budget film. Lee and Sensmeier are silently fierce as their respective characters (and it’s refreshing to see an American Indian play a role that matches his ethnicity), but it’s D’Onofrio who steals the show, channelling the best of Andy Devine with the solemnity of a child at prayer. These being said, a story is rarely complete without a great villain, and Sarsgaard is terrific as the lawless lord of the land. Bogue exudes all the menace of a serial killer, filling the viewer with silent fear, as if cornered by a cobra.

More important than all of this, however, is that Fuqua never feels the need to call out the fact of his cast’s diversity  — the N-bomb, or any blatant slur, is not to be found in this film (take note, Tarantino), and on the opposite side, there is no deification of any one member of the seven above the other. Further, unlike the original film, there is no romantic subplot involving one of the seven, and that’s exactly how it should be — this is a tale of frontier justice; there’s little time to smooch while bullets fly over your head.

I do have a couple of misgivings about the film — nothing that drags it down considerably, but still, Haley Bennett’s Emma, while far from being a damsel in distress, is rarely seen with a smile on her face. Granted, things go horribly for her in the first scene and she may well go down with her village, but even when the town is partaking in minor pleasantries, she is still solemn. Still, I’ve never been in such a situation, so who am I to talk? Lastly, the montage of the seven training the townsfolk in weaponry goes over too fast — it comes off as somewhat hard to believe they became good marksmen so fast.

Even so, I say praise be Antoine Fuqua, because he has done what few others could — remaking a classic is no walk in the park, but he does so with tact and poignancy, and perfect for the age we live in. After all, if we can’t defend ourselves against tyranny, what good are we?

Rating: 4.5/5

Fearless


In making Sully, legendary director Clint Eastwood has created an amazing epic about an event most would deem TV movie fare. True, the movie is the shortest of his career, running at just 95 minutes, but it is nothing short of astounding in every sense of the word, a film that is moving, suspenseful and, in presentation, the first of its kind.

Based on a true story that made international headlines in 2009, the film deals with the human psyche as well as presenting the enduring legacy of its title figure. Tom Hanks (Angels & Demons) brillaintly portrays Captain Chesley Sullenberger as a man thrust into the public eye, all for keeping people safe in a moment of extreme crisis — he is shocked and haunted by what-if scenarios in his mind, and it only gets worse when the airline companies and insurance firms butt in, trying to find some damning evidence to ruin him and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight), all while having to deal by proxy with his wife (Laura Linney, John Adams) and daughters’ stress of being daunted by the press outside their home.

If it sounds as though I’ve downplayed the acting capability of Mr. Eckhart and Ms. Linney, my apologies, for they are fantastic as well, providing a moral compass to guide Sully and keep him resolute in a time of great stress. Just as impressive is the smaller but very necessary focus on a few of the passengers aboard Flight 1549, which could easily have slowed down the film to the dreaded level of boredom most disaster films suffer from. Thankfully, the passengers focused on only help us as viewers to fear for their safety. Believe me, there are moments in this film where, even though you know how the crew and passengers end up, you cling to your seat for dear life and gasp in terror.

As I said before, Sully is the first film of its kind in that it’s filmed almost entirely with IMAX cameras — 95%, according to IMAX Corp., and the difference is staggering. If there is an IMAX theater near you, you are doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t see it in the aforementioned format. The screen fills to the complete 1.90:1 IMAX aspect ratio, and the sound was mixed for IMAX first, so you’re getting the best balance and listening experience here and here alone. However, a format doesn’t guarantee a great film, but you get one here, thanks not just to the innovative octogenarian Eastwood, but his go-to cinematographer Tom Stern (Hereafter, American Sniper) and first-time Eastwood company member Blu Murray as editor. The film, occasionally jumping from event to event, is a seamless, much less coherent, experience.

While the Hollywood intelligentsia and some of the public may not think much of Eastwood now due to his politics, I urge you to put those views of his to the side and enjoy the film as it stands — a salute to heroism under fire, and thus far, the best motion picture of the year.

Rating: 5/5

Soon You’ll See A Golden Stream Of Light

2016 has been a great year for me crying like a baby at the movies, and Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon is no exception! As a huge fan of the original, to the point of memorizing and frequently singing the songs from it, I was, at first, disappointed when I heard that this remake was to be a non-musical adaptation, let alone set in the present day. As the release date drew nearer, I read interviews with the cast and crew that eased my doubts, and the final trailer had me hooked. In the end, I’m so glad at how well the remake is put together, rid of winks and nods to the original (as was the director’s intention) and crafting a wholly new experience that brings to mind the best of the adventure movies of the 1980’s.

The story opens succinctly – Pete, at age 5, is the sole survivor of a car crash while his parents are going with him on a camping trip. Alone in the forest, he becomes acquainted with a huge dragon, who seeks to protect him. Six years pass, and Pete (Oakes Fegley, This Is Where I Leave You) and his dragon, whom he names Elliot, are best of friends, enjoying their lives of fun and play together. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Millhaven, a logging crew, led by brothers Gavin (Karl Urban, Star Trek Beyond) and Jack (Wes Bentley, Interstellar), draws nearer to the protected parts of the forest, while a park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) seeks to keep law and order between the two, and all the while, the children of the town are driven by the stories of dragons in the forest told by Mr. Meecham (Robert Redford, Jeremiah Johnson). All of these people will meet through the one thing nobody seems to believe in!

In addition to me sputtering like a faucet, 2016 is also a great year for actors, particularly children —  Oakes Fegley brings the requisite euphoric glee when around Elliot to showing great fear and wonder when taken away from him. Further, child actress Oona Laurence (Southpaw) is charming as Natalie, Jack’s daughter, instructing Pete on the ways of the world he has missed out on with warmth and kindness. While they do carry the heft of the film’s emotional weight, the adults in this film do not rest on their laurels at all, best shown by Howard and Redford, as a daughter and father looking to believe in stuff most left to childish fantasy and getting far more than they bargained for. Wes Bentley and Karl Urban also do great work in their roles, with Bentley showing a warmer side than I’ve seen from him in his previous films, while Urban, the ultimately misguided villain of the story, being mean but never truly evil, which is how it should be; his character is not a mustache-twirler.

The film is gorgeously shot in the home of Middle-Earth, New Zealand, and by no less than cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), who shows off the best of the land in a way that enhances the believability of the story and the great visual effects by the amazing artists at Weta Digita, who make Elliot’s fantastic self seem real and breathing, and only help the raw emotions you as an audience member feel throughout the course of this movie. Ultimately though, the best kudos have to be given to writer-director David Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, who could easily have plagiarized the previous film’s material and instead crafted a harrowing, beautiful experience that doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

Between this and The Jungle Book, Disney is on a roll with its live-action ventures! I look forward to what Lowery and Halbrooks bring to their upcoming remake of Peter Pan, also at the House of Mouse. Until then, see this movie and you will leave feeling happy to be alive!

Rating: 5/5

Boldly Go

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The tribute is only… logical!

If space is the final frontier, may it go on forever! Under the unexpected hands of the Fast & Furious series’ Justin Lin, the rebooted Star Trek films have hit a series high in this year’s 50th Anniversary Extravaganza — Star Trek Beyond. The film’s predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness, represented a disappointment for many fans, myself included — from a white Khan to a cop-out ending, Into Darkness was a misstep on almost every front. That is not the case with this film!

With three years into the Enterprise‘s five-year mission, not all is well aboard. Her captain, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), is burdened with doubts about his ability to lead the crew and live up to his late father’s reputation — how’s that for a birthday present? — while Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto, American Horror Story: Asylum) is doubled down with the death of an old friend and a break-up with his girlfriend/crewmate Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana, Guardians of the Galaxy), and the rest of the ship’s compatriots aren’t faring much better. On arrival to a starbase to resupply, the crew is tasked with a mission on a distant and uncharted planet, where old dangers and new allies await.

The production history behind Star Trek Beyond is a fairly tumultuous one — once set to be written and directed by Roberto Orci (co-writer of the previous installments), his  departure warranted both a new director and, in Paramount’s eyes, a new script, this time from Scotty himself, Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and relative newcomer Doug Jung. Their script channels the best the series has to offer, and still offer a film that may well be remembered as a classic. In point of fact, I was reminded more than once of two classic films — The Great Escape and Stalag 17 — that no doubt played a great hand in the writing of this film, as a prison camp setting with a motorcycle chase scene is no doubt cut from the same cloth!

My only gripe with the story is the villain, a dark and creepy one (what else?) called Krall. Played by the one and only Idris Elba (The Jungle Book), we never seem to know his motivation or the full circumstances of his being a villain. He seems something of a mashup between Star Trek‘s Nero and Star Trek: Insurrection‘s Ru’afo — make of that what you will — but we know littler about Krall than we do the aforementioned two.

Still, the decision to hire Pegg and Jung paid off brilliantly, as bringing new blood to this film only helps it shed the ghosts of its predecessor while bringing a fresh eye to the franchise in the form of director Justin Lin. Those fearing the “car chase” mentality of the Fast & Furious films need not worry — if anything, Lin brings his knowledge of a series’ cast and the feeling of family it implies, both during and after a take. Sign him for more, Paramount!

Speaking of family, a new addition to the crew in this film is a welcome one in the form of the mysterious hunter Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), who takes a shine to engineering and, of course, to Scotty! Ms. Boutella brings some much-loved mirth and ingenuity to the film, and I do hope we see more of her in coming sequels! The remaining crew, most notably Bones (Karl Urban, Dredd) and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, Green Room), are given much greater material than they had in Into Darkness, and redeem the beloved nature of their characters. On that note, be prepared to cry buckets in regard to a couple of tributes to their respective crewmembers.

I was reminded by a friend recently about how Gene Roddenberry was a visionary ahead of his time, and on the 50th Anniversary of his series’ genesis, I feel he’d be proud of this tribute, both to his work and his belief in the endurance of the human race. I can’t wait for more Trek following Beyond, but if producer J.J. Abrams is anyone to go by (and he is), it truly will go where no one has gone before!

Rating: 4.5/5

Dial Tone

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Seriously, what’s the final title?

I am seriously at complete odds with what I just saw-who in their right mind okayed the script for this new version of Ghostbusters? Before saying anything further, I am a feminist and this movie is like a flat, heated bottle of Diet Coke that has gone out of date by about five years. Let the idea of that simmer on your tongue for a second or twelve. It isn’t appetizing, is it?

The all-lady cast of Ghostbusters (or is it Ghostbusters: Answer The Call? Set the title straight, Sony!) is not the problem with this reboot, either in decision or performance. Rather, I reiterate, it is the lousy script, whose writers seem wholly uninterested with making a feminist blockbuster, or making a good movie at all, and instead focus on laying groundwork for a sequel and spinoffs.

It starts out innocently enough — Columbia University professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig, The Martian) is dragged back into a past she’d rather forget when a book she co-wrote on the paranormal resurfaces online, thanks to her estranged childhood friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids). Tracking her down leads her to a haunted house nearby, where a spontaneous experiment conducted by Abby leads to the both of them stumbling upon the discovery of a malevolent ghost. Caught on camera professing her findings, one thing leads to another, and Erin is fired days short of receiving tenure, and more or less forced to join forces, as it were, with her girlhood chum and her partner in scientific experimentation, Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live). Together, and with new recruit Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, The Company We Keep), they set out to rid New York City of a rising threat.

It sounds better than it actually is — this is boring. So damn boring, and boy, does it show. While the new ladies in the jumpsuits are damn good with this lousy script (particularly Ms. McKinnon, a knockout!), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), as the receptionist, is as dead as a doornail/knob/knocker. He reads every single line in the style of the lead in a middle school play. Between this and the reboot of Vacation, he should never do a dedicated comedy again — his taste is ass. Renowned English actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) is in two scenes in the opening and is gone for the rest of the picture — why cast an actor of his caliber if you won’t use him to his fullest? The same applies to actors Michael Kenneth Williams (RoboCop) and Andy Garcia (The Ocean’s Eleven Trilogy), both in dry, one note roles. Even though no one made them take these blasé parts, why couldn’t they have been better utilized? The kingpin insult committed by this film is the use of the original Ghostbusters actors (sans Harold Ramis, God rest his soul) in pathetic wink-and-nod cameos. Bill Murray’s is the best-written of the bunch, but that’s not saying much, while Sigourney Weaver’s is insultingly relegated to the end credits scenes. So much for a feminist blockbuster.

Further, the script – it’s as if Sony got pitched an all-female Ghostbusters and gave writers Kate Dippold and Paul Feig (the latter of whom is also the director) final cut and no script doctor. Riddled with a bland villain, broken PG-13 sexual epithets and lousy gender and ethnicity jokes, this film offends more than it inspires, and its ending is the worst finale to a summer movie since Spider-Man 3Almost as bad as the script are the visual effects. While other films make you believe in ghosts, this film gives you no reason to — Slimer and his ghoulish crew look like they belong in a PlayStation 2 full-motion video cutscene. These paltry effects are utter hogwash, and while I didn’t see the film in the director’s intended format of IMAX 3D, I shouldn’t have to shell out extra cash just to get a better experience, not that an added dimension could save this film.

The final insult is that Sony intends to make a shared universe of Ghostbusters films, as evidenced well before its post-credits scene by a logo for a subsidiary company they’ve set up – “Ghost Corps, A Columbia Pictures Company.” Really, Sony? Filching the multi-film universe shtick is pathetic in and of itself, but to do so with Ghostbusters signifies the first of many nails in the proverbial coffin.

Under the circumstances, the crew behind this Ghostbusters had a lot to work under — salvaging what could have been Ghostbusters III, balancing the expectations of new fans with the disappointment/rampant sexism of old fans and filling the pocketbooks of studio suits, but the fact is that they weren’t forced to make this film and, in the end, it still sucks. It isn’t one of the worst films I’ve seen, but it is, hand to heart, the biggest disappointment of the year.

Rating: 1/5